Cola

Nichol Kola

History: We have been waiting a long time to write this review. Not because we’re lazy, but because finding the history behind this soda was a maddeningly slow process. In the 2010 edition of Soda Spectrum, contributor Blair Matthews writes “there’s hardly a trace of what was once such a successful and lucrative cola brand.” But searching is our thing… so we searched. We consulted Eric Wideman, “the nation’s expert on Nichol Kola,” according to his boss, Orca Beverage President Mike Bourgeois. And based on the information we’ve gathered from Wideman, I believe it. I mean what an absurdly specific thing to be obsessed with: a soda that started in 1936. Personally I am obsessed with Natalie and Tonya… but they’re not talking to me anymore. Anyway, here’s what Wideman relayed to us about Nichol Cola: first there was Sun-Boc, then there was Ver-Vac, Pow! World War I – sugar problems – yadda, yadda, yadda. And now here we are years later with Orca Beverage resurrecting a forgotten brand. Got it? Good. Peace out. Jk. God, for how long it took us to write this, we are doing it in the most annoying way possible. Here’s a synopsis of the soda’s history as written in the book The House of Quality: The History of the H.R. Nicholson Company by Harry R. Nicholson. Wideman sent us excerpts from this extremely rare publication. We do know it’s a real thing though because we found it online in Australia’s National Library. Go figure. Harry R. Nicholson was a business man. Dude was savvy back in the early 1900’s. With prohibition on the rise, he created Sun-Boc an amber not-quite-beer that became a hit with people looking for something to replace their former definitely-real-beer. After Sun-Boc’s success, Nicholson invested that money into a cola he called Ver-Vac designed to compete with Coca Cola. Well Ver-Vac, despite maybe being the worst-named soda I’ve ever heard of, was a hit. Nicholson raked in $110,000 from investors to go all-in on it. And then he hit a road block called World War I, which led to sugar rationing and a spike in sugar’s price. Here’s the big problem with that; sugar is a huge part of soda and the amount of sugar businesses “were allotted was based on their usage before the rationing” and since Ver-Vac was a relatively new venture, Nicholson didn’t get anywhere close to enough of it to run a soda business. After a bad business deal on sugar and then the sudden stoppage of the war, Ver-Vac’s fizz as a company went flat. In 1926, Nicholson gave cola a shot again, this time branding it as “Nichol Kola” to compete with brands like Pepsi. He would sell the concentrate to independent bottlers who would then mix it up and sell it. Guess how much each bottle sold for?

Nichol Kola continued into the 1970’s, but as independent bottlers fell by the wayside, there were fewer and fewer businesses to which the company could sell their soda’s concentrate. The trend continued until Nichol Kola met the same fate as Ver-Vac. But in 2006 Orca Beverage revamped the brand. If you haven’t read past reviews, Orca Beverage is a large soda manufacturer and distributer based out of Mukilteo, Washington. Their “thing,” if you will, is buying up vintage brands no longer in production and putting them back on shelves. Bourgeois tells us about his company, “We do that because our specialty is vintage soda. We just want to consolidate as many in-house as we can.” The current incantation of Nichol Kola is not the original formula. When asked to describe today’s recipe, Bourgeois played it pretty close to the vest, but pointed out cinnamon and coriander as ingredients used. He also says there are ingredients in it “that typically aren’t found in colas anymore.” Alright, history lesson over. We finally got that part out of the way. Now let’s drink this damn thing.

Where to get: Nichol Kola is commonly available at Rocketfizz retailers. You can also order it online from Summit City Soda or Orca Beverage. Single bottles are available for purchase from Soda Emporium.

Nose: Rich cola scent. Prominent cinnamon and mild citrus smells.

Taste: Cinnamon; vanilla; mild spice; sugar. Nichol Kola’s defining flavor is spice. To give you an idea, imagine a soft cola with prominent cooking spice notes, most notably cinnamon. There’s also some vanilla and mild citrus flavors. Drinks very easy. If you take some time in between sips, the soda’s spices slowly reveal themselves. Coriander jumps out as well as a stronger, spicier cinnamon. It has a really nice lingering effect. It’s very smooth and not as bitter as certain colas like Pepsi. The sugar isn’t too strong either. The real flavor bang comes near the end of the sip, so take your time on this soda.

Finish: Lingering spices. Reminds me of a spice cake with added vanilla. As with the body, cinnamon is probably the most recognizable flavor on the finish.

Rating: Nichol Kola is an exceptionally smooth cola that drinks easy and maintains a nice balance of sweetness and bitterness. Any bottler that uses cinnamon in its cola is already ahead of the game and it’s the starring ingredient in Nichol Kola. This has a warming sensation to it when you drink it. It’s comfort soda. What surprises me is that the majority of the flavor comes on the soda’s finish. You really get the full-bodied flavor after you’ve already swigged the liquid down your gullet. You’ll taste bold cinnamon, similar to spice cake. Also vanilla and mild orange citrus. It also mixes really well with a vanilla-heavy rum if you’re into the spirits. Try Captain Morgan Black + Nichol Kola. We call it the Five Star Fadeout. One of our writers is passed out on the couch as I write this after having several of them. He’s the reason for the name. This is definitely a cola to try. But it’s not without faults. I wish there were more prominent flavors in the first half of each sip. I wanted to be greeted by something lovely rather than having to wait for it. But I use that same philosophy in my marriages and I’m on my third one, so I could be wrong there. If the first half of each sip was as nice the finish, this would be a five star soda. It’s still one that we believe all craft soda connoisseurs should sample and it’ ability to function well as a standalone drink and a mixer make it even more appealing. Definitely try it both ways. Just don’t be like our writer.

Four Stars

Excel Bottling Company: Lucky Cherry Cola

History: Cherry colas are criminally underproduced in the craft soda industry, so it’s nice to see one of the old-timers churning out their take on the category. Excel Bottling Company out of Breese, Illinois has been around since 1936. These guys have been making craft soda since before it was called “craft soda.” Excel Bottling Sales and Communications Manager Colton Huelskamp tells us about the company’s origin, retelling the story of how “Edward ‘Lefty’ Meier caught a bank robber a town over and used the reward money to purchase a used bottle washer and filler” to serve the local community soda. What a swell guy. Catch the bad guys. Serve the good ones. Excel Bottling also makes beer, but they’re known mostly for their soda. The company bottles over 18 different flavors, from their signature Lucky Club Cola to the wacky Gooey Butter Cake Soda. Lucky Club Cherry, as you might guess, is a spinoff of their original cola. Made with pure cane sugar and no preservatives, Huelskamp says “Lucky Cherry stands out due to its ingredients. The cherry flavoring is actually from a cherry concentrate, so it uses real juices and no artificial ones.” My only immediate critique about this soda is that it comes in a 20 oz. plastic bottle instead of glass. The craft soda purist in me is sad about this. But as Huelskamp explains the soda’s flavor design to us more, I become more optimistic. He continues he previous thoughts, saying “We wanted it to have a very sweet cola taste that isn’t too acidic, while letting a lot of the real cherry flavor come through.” No preservatives √ Pure cane sugar √ Real cherry √. I’m ready; let’s do this.

Where to get: Excel Bottling Sodas are usually found around the St. Louis region, but you can always contact the company for your own order and they’ll hook you up. To get in touch with Excel Bottling, go here.

Nose: Classic cherry cola smell with an added grenadine scent. Smells sweeter than the cherry cola you’re probably used to drinking. Like a cherry cola you’d have made behind the bar.

Taste: Grenadine; cola; maraschino cherry; vanilla; mild creaminess; soft carbonation. There are several elements of Lucky Club Cherry Cola that define its flavor profile and gustation experience. First, there’s a classic cola flavor as the base – it’s slightly sweeter than most craft colas. This base flavor gets taken to a different level with the soda’s elongated notes of grenadine syrup and maraschino cherry, along with slightly creamy vanilla. The grenadine flavor really gives this cherry cola a more sophisticated taste. The vanilla and maraschino cherries combine with the soft carbonation to give this a creamy vanilla-cherry cola taste. The carbonation is a major star in Lucky Club Cherry’s drinking experience. It floats along the tongue like morning ocean foam on the beach. This is a cherry cola that has classic flavors, but blends them with maraschino cherry and vanilla in a way that makes Lucky Club feel and taste like it’s on a higher plane.

Finish: Slightly bitter cola bite that quickly transitions into maraschino cherries and sugar. Notes of vanilla linger in the background and remain until the next sip.

Rating: Simply put, Lucky Club Cherry Cola is outstanding. It’s the craft cherry cola you should be drinking. It blends the flavors of grenadine, maraschino cherries, and vanilla in a way that makes the soda taste sophisticated, yet still easy to drink. Another enjoyable element of Lucky Club Cherry is the texture. It feels light and soft in the mouth. The bubbles are foamy and glide along the tongue. And the creamy vanilla flavor brings it all home and ties a bow on it. I’d go as far to label this as more of a cherry-vanilla cola than strictly cherry. Almost like a cherry cream cola. The use of vanilla here is some of the best I’ve tasted in any soda. On ice the vanilla notes open up even more, so if you want a creamier flavor, add ice. I can’t say enough good things about this – it’s dreamy. It makes me forget I’m in debt. Good thing I write about soda on the Internet… that’ll pay the bills. I really have no suggestions to improve Lucky Club Cherry Cola. Some people might prefer a little more bittersweetness in the main cola flavor, but cherry colas are almost always sweeter than their regular counterparts. This is so flavorful, so drinkable, and flat out enjoyable that I plan on putting it in my regular rotation. I hope you’ll at least give it a shot to crack yours.

Five Stars

Fentimans: Curiosity Cola

History: Ask anybody plugged into the craft soda world and they’ll tell you Fentimans has a sterling reputation as a beverage-maker. And none of the UK-based company’s sodas earn higher marks than Curiosity Cola. Galco’s Soda Pop Shop owner, John Nese, who we affectionately call the “Godfather of soda” says the New York Times labeled Curiosity Cola as the best in its category… in the world. You’ll hear that rumor a lot online. We’ve extensively looked for the evidence and cannot back up his claims, but the point is that this is a cola with some serious fanfare. Fentimans was founded in 1905 in Cleckheaton, England when an iron puddler named Thomas Fentiman “was approached by a fellow tradesman for a loan. A deal was struck and a recipe for botanically brewed ginger beer was provided as security. The loan was never repaid so Thomas became the owner of the unique recipe.” Fentimans’ claim to fame is that they infuse their sodas with botanicals. Think herbs, spices, oils, etc. Ginger is a staple ingredient in Fentimans’ sodas, including Curiosity Cola. The company actually brews their sodas like a beer using fermented ginger root extract. According to Fentimans North America Sales and Marketing Coordinator Karyssa Veltri, “The multi-stage process involves mashing and infusion of the ginger root, fermentation, chilling and centrifugation.” In total, she says it takes “seven full days” to brew one of their sodas. Allegedly, it took God six to create the universe. Does that make this soda… heavenly? I’ll see myself out.

Fentimans North America sells eight different flavors of soda, none with more name recognition than Curiosity Cola. In addition to fermented ginger root extract, Veltri tells us the recipe also contains brewer’s yeast, pure cane sugar, and spring water. The rest of the soda’s herbs and spices were not disclosed. Veltri adds that as with all Fenitmans soda, the goal for Curiosity Cola is to have a “distinctive depth of flavour, complex mouthfeel and full body.” She goes further, adding that Curiosity cola is designed to have a “pleasing background of citrus notes and an authentic spiciness, and a warmth to the finish.” As you can see, this isn’t some cola you just pull off the shelf and guzzle. It’s intended to be more sophisticated. And as such, you’ll pay a more sophisticated price. A recent trip to the supermarket netted me nearly $10 for a four-pack. Oh, and the name. You wanna know about the name, right? Veltri tells us Curiosity Cola is named after an 1840’s English novel called The Old Curiosity Shop. Spoilers: a lot of people die and it does not have a happy ending. Do I still want to drink this now?? Yes. Yes, I do. From the name to the flavor profile to the cute little 9.3 oz. bottle, everything about Curiosity Cola passes the eye test. Now for the oral exam. That sounds gross. Sorry.

Where to get: Fentimans is most popular in the United Kingdom, but is quickly gaining popularity in North America. In the UK, check out the company online locator to find your nearest stockist. For you North Americans, find your closest local retailer here. You can also purchase Fentimans online at the company’s personal recommendation from MyBrands. It’s also available from Soda Emporium online in single bottles and four-packs.

Nose: General cola; cloves; vanilla; Christmas spice; cinnamon. This smells like a spiced cola. Reminds me of walking into the kitchen on Christmas afternoon. Rustic. Herbal. Yet familiar.

Taste: Cloves; cinnamon; cola; cane sugar; vanilla; ginger; birch. This is quite a flavorful experience for you mouth. There’s so many different herbs and spices in here, there’s no way we’ll be able to identify them all. And yet, despite all the ingredients, everything flows seamlessly in Fentimans Curiosity Cola. There’s a good, old school, slightly bittersweet cola flavor as a base, but it’s supplemented by so many other tasting notes. Cloves and cinnamon seem to stand out most for us. They add some savoriness to the body of the drink and give it a legitimate spiced cola flavor. You also prominently taste ginger. But instead of being spicy like in so many other sodas, here the ginger gives the cola more of a tanginess. Vanilla also floats about in the background, giving the cola a mildly soft, sweet character. We also taste maybe a little birch or mint in here. Whatever it is, it’s very mild, but it gives the cola almost a little bit of a root beer flavor on certain sips. Curiosity Cola is complicated when analyzing the flavor, but the good news is that when the liquid hits your lips, it’s so good you won’t want to do any thinking.

Finish: I think this is where that fermented ginger comes in the most. It gives the drink a little zip in addition to the tanginess in the body. This fades in place of soft vanilla and mellow spices.

Rating: Fentimans Curiosity Cola may very well be the best cola in the world. Coca-Cola may be the most popular mass-produced soft drink, but when it comes to craft soda, colas are often pushed into the background behind root beer and cream soda. If there was ever an inspiration for bottlers to make a cola so great that it commands center stage, Curiosity Cola is the one. It has undeniably spectacular, sophisticated, and most importantly, balanced flavor. This soda is a pantheon of herbs, spices, and flavors that should seemingly overwhelm the palate; yet they provide a level of pleasure rarely achieved in non-alcoholic beverages. From the sweet savoriness of the cinnamon and cloves, and the tanginess of the ginger, all the way to the signature bittersweet vintage cola body – Fentimans Curiosity Cola earns itself a place on craft soda’s Mount Rushmore. Everything in this bottle works. Each tasting note flows seamlessly into the next. From the initial sip to the lingering finish, it’s exquisite. It’s full-bodied, but not overpowering. Sweet and also savory. And it pairs alarmingly well with bourbon. One of our writers learned this lesson the hard way and was too hungover to attend one of our photo sessions the next morning. Embarrassing, yet inspiring. Worth it. And that is the point I leave you with. Everything about Curiosity Cola is worth it. I won’t talk to you for weeks if you don’t buy this as soon as you possibly can. This is a feat in craft cola. Enjoy it.

Five Stars

Q Drinks: Kola

History: After taking a bullet in the Battle of Columbus, John Pemberton needed a drink, and boy did he craft a knockout: wine, kola nut, and cocaine. He called it Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. He eventually replaced the wine with sugar, carbonated water, and phosphoric acid to create Coca Cola. Coca Cola still contained cocaine in the recipe up until 1906 with the bitter caffeine-infused kola nut mostly present to mask the drug. Brooklyn-based Q Drinks founder Jordan Silbert believes the giant company’s monopoly on the category is a reason more bottlers don’t attempt their own version.”What the heck do you do? There’s no such thing as cola flavor,” he argues. Silbert’s company is a staple in the cocktail industry and is arguably the most recognizable line of craft mixers on the market. He only started making sodas in 2011. But first you need to know his story because it’s hilarious. Silbert remembers having a gin and tonic with some friends in his backyard in 2004. Then another. And another. He noticed his teeth started to feel sticky. Glancing at the ingredients list on the bottle of Schweppes tonic water he was using as a mixer, he noticed lots of artificial additives and high fructose corn syrup. Same thing when he looked at the bottle of soda his friend was drinking. Now drunk and motivated, he idealized his own version of tonic water. The difference between Jordan and most young adults who get drunk and have good ideas is that he remembered it the next morning. “The idea of creating something better didn’t go away,” he said. Q Drinks indeed was founded on tonic water where it was initially served at three restaurants in the New York area. This led to a big write-up in the New York Times and the brand took off. Q Tonic bottling began in 2008 with ginger ale in 2011 and then club soda, citrus soda, and kola in 2012. Today, Q Drinks offers 8 different flavors. “We use awesome ingredients. We agonize ingredients,” Silbert boasts. It’s those same ingredients that Silbert says sets the company’s kola apart from its competitors.

To quote Iron Chef, Q Kola is made with a veritable pantheon of flavors. A quick review of the Q Drinks website reveals a long list: “kola nut, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, lemon, lime, orange, and nutmeg.” Quite a list when compared with a drink like Coca Cola where most of those flavors are foreign. Silbert admits cola was the hardest flavor to concept out, but he had a distinct vision for the it. “It’s a blend of spices and fruits that give you four tasting elements: tang, sweet, spice, and savory,” he explains. He believes the bitter kola nut, phosphoric acid, and citrus impart a nice tanginess to the flavor profile, while the cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg bring some needed spice and savory elements. One of those “amazing ingredients” mentioned above focuses on the soda’s sweetener. Q Drinks uses “organic agave from the Mexican countryside ” instead of cane sugar to give the kola a “dirty sweetness that’s warming” as Silbert describes. Another point that sets Q Kola apart from other colas is that the soda is only 70 calories per bottle. So you don’t have to shed tears of self-hatred as you type it into your daily fitness app calculator. To be fair, the soda comes in a smaller bottle, but let’s be honest – most of us aren’t in a position to judge about size. One last aspect to pay attention to with the cola, as with all Q Drinks beverages, is the carbonation. The company uses custom-built thick glass bottles engineered to hold more bubbles. Silbert admits Kola is a little less popular than other beverages in the Q Drinks portfolio, but to us it was the most soda-ish, so we start our journey with the brand here. He finishes our conversation succinctly by putting a bow on the company’s philosophy, saying “We care. We give a shit.” Us too, Jordan. Us too.

Where to get: Q Drinks sodas are found nationally throughout the U.S. Safeway, Whole Foods, and BevMO stores are just a few of the more common options. But honestly, I’d be surprised if you couldn’t find this at your local grocery or liquor store in bottles or cans. You can find your nearest retailer by checking their online locator. You can also purchase it online from a variety of stores like Amazon, Walmart, or from Q Drinks directly.

Nose: Classic cola; cloves; cinnamon; nutmeg. Smells of a classic cola with a touch more spice, most notably nutmeg.

Taste: Cola; orange; lime; citrus; nutmeg; cinnamon. Definitely a softer cola in terms of mouth feel than most on the market. Also definitely not as sweet at 20 grams of sugar for a 9 oz. bottle. This doesn’t have the harsh, bitter carbonation you’re used to with Coca-Cola. The lighter carbonation helps the flavors come through more, and several are recognizable to the tongue. Besides traditional cola flavor, what’s most striking about Q Kola is the citrus. You taste orange and lime the most and they give the cola a unique twang you won’t find in many others – you feel it in the back of the tongue most. It’s important to note the citrus elements don’t render the cola overly acidic – just a little tangier than most. You’ll also taste undertones of cinnamon and nutmeg. These are ingredients found in many craft colas, but they’re more subdued in Q Kola, more of a lingering flavor in the background. There’s also just a touch of earthiness to this, which comes from the kola nut, a bitter ingredient in general. As a whole, it’s not overly strong in flavor, but you can taste a lot of the different components that make it what it taste fresher than a majority of what’s out there. Very easy to drink on its own or with your favorite liquid encouragement.

Finish: Kind of a tangy caramel finish with subtle spices, most notably cinnamon. Definitely pleasant.

Rating: When tasting Q Kola, it’s clear the soda’s composition was tailored to fit with cocktails more so than drinking on its own. And that’s not a bad thing. Out of the bottle, Q Kola is defined by how easy it is to drink. It’s a very soft cola with less carbonation than its relatives. All the traditional craft cola ingredients are here – cinnamon, nutmeg, citrus – but they stand out in ways you aren’t used to in colas. Where Q Kola really shines is its use of citrus. The orange and lime tasting notes in this are bold and stand out near the beginning of each sip, giving the soda its signature tangy flavor. And listen, I’ve had some tangy things in my day, including the girl from the other night – they’re rarely good. This is an exception. That tangy feeling you taste near the back of your tongue contrasts well with the spices you taste later in each sip. The spices we tasted the most were nutmeg and cinnamon, in that order. The nutmeg imparts a nice savoriness, while the cinnamon enhances the soda’s traditional cola flavor. Bottom line, this tastes more refreshing than traditional cola with a strong citrus influence and mild spices. The only drawback we found with this cola is the fact that its pretty light. But that’s by design because its primary objective is to mix with spirits. I’d probably turn the volume up a couple levels on everything and I think Q Kola could become one of the best colas you could purchase to drink unencumbered by alcohol or ice. Still, I’d definitely recommend this, particularly if you’re a cola or spiced soda fan. It’s a nice change of pace. For those of you who partake in the spirits, Q Kola is a monster of a mixer. Perfect for bourbon and excellent with rum. Drink half the bottle on its own, then mix it with your favorite liquor. It’s easy drinking out of the bottle and easier drinking paired with booze. Don’t overlook Q Kola as simply a sidekick for alcohol; this is a cola that holds its own with the best of them.

Four Stars

Karma Cola: Karma Cola

History: Karma Cola is quite literally putting the craft in craft soda. It is perhaps the most thought-out cola in the entire world. The beverage originated in 2012 out of Auckland, New Zealand, and is crafted with ingredients from all over the globe. There’s a wonderful story too that we’ll explain, but let’s start here. Real kola nut from the Boma village in Sierra Leone. Vanilla bean from the Forest Garden Growers Association in Sri Lanka. Organic cane sugar from Maharashtra, India. Premium ingredients are almost always the biggest selling point to potential craft soda customers, and that list probably already has half of you searching for where to buy this soda. It’s as enticing as a college cheerleader carwash to a group of lonely middle-aged men. Trust me, my uncle gets his car washed a lot. Karma cola isn’t shy about telling the public what’s in its soda. In fact, they listed out every single ingredient in their cola in an email to us. Some of the additional ingredient highlights include organic lemon juice, organic malt extract, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, orange oil, and lime oil. Every ingredient in Karma Cola is organic and fairly traded, and no preservatives are used. Karma Cola Sales Manager of Sydney, Mitch Donaldson, says the company tried at least thirty different versions before they got the flavor right. He says the soda was designed to taste clean and not syrupy. One of the cola’s most important ingredients is one you might not recognize: malt. Donaldson explains, “The roasted spring barley malt extract we use for both colour and flavour gives Karma Cola a completely different spectrum of taste,” adding that it provides a depth you won’t taste in other colas. Another interesting note: all of the soda’s acidity comes from the fruit juices and oils inside it as opposed to something like phosphoric acid. Simply put, this is designed to taste sophisticated, to taste better. In addition to the malt and all the spices in Karma Cola, even the organic cane sugar leaves a little something extra for your tongue. Donaldson explains to us that after the sugar’s refining process is finished, it is still left with mild tasting notes “of caramel and chocolatey flavours.” And all of this is great – we realize it’s the part you care about most, so we started with it. But what’s truly remarkable about this soda is what goes on beyond the bottle.

“We always knew we wanted to create a great tasting drink, but what makes us unique is not just our flavour or artistic bottles, it’s what we give back to cola farmers in Sierra Leone,” says Donaldson. For every bottle of Karma Cola that’s sold, a portion of the proceeds go to the kola nut farmers in the Boma village of Sierra Leone. That money helped build the Makenneh Bridge that joined the old and new portions of the village to ensure safer transport of people and goods. According to Donaldson, the village was able to “rehabilitate 12 forest farms,” send “50 young girls to school annually,” “support an educational HIV/AIDS theatre group,” and “build a rice huller” to help create additional revenue. Good stuff. Their work hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2014 Karma Cola was named “World’s Fairest Trader” by the Fairtrade International. You might also notice the tribal art on their bottle. It stands out. Their website notes “The blue and red iconic design represents the African water spirit, Mami Wata, who embodies both good and evil.” This is a soda that has all the makings of something special, even the backstory. Hopefully we drink the good and not the evil.

Where to get: Karma Cola is sold is nine countries: New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, China, the United Kingdom, Norway, Holland, Denmark and Sweden. Future expansion areas include more of Europe, Australasia, and the United States. For all you Aussies, you can find the nearest physical retailer of Karma Cola here. For the rest of you, including all Americans wanting to get their hands on this, email the company at info@allgoodorganics.co.nz or hello@karmacola.com.au.

Nose: Spices; cinnamon; traditional cola, soft vanilla.

Taste: Spices; kola nut; sugar; cinnamon; nutmeg; mild bitterness; sugar. Spices flood the mouth and rush up into the nose on each sip. It’s the first thing you’ll taste and the biggest take away when drinking Karma Cola. It’s unlike any cola you’ve ever had in that regard. The spices are bold and varied; you’ll taste a different one at the forefront on each sip. We probably can’t identify them all by taste, but cinnamon and nutmeg are vivid. The kola nut flavor has a nice earthiness to it, but is attached at the hip to the soda’s cane sugar. So you’ll get that musky bitter taste, but it’s brief before the sugar rush hits. Definitely a sweeter cola, but not the sweetest of the bunch. Karma Cola uses malt extract for color and flavor. You’ll definitely taste this because when combined with the spices, it imparts a bit of a savory taste to the cola. The savoriness of the malt combined with the bitterness of the kola nut, the sweetness and drinkability of the cane sugar and the boldness of the spices, all converge on each other to form a cola with a most sophisticated flavor.

Finish: Bittersweet kola nut. Earthier than the body of the soda.

Rating: This is one of the best-tasting colas I’ve ever had in my life. What separates Karma Cola from your run-of-the-mill cola is its lush bounty of spices that fill the mouth upon every sip and define the soda. It’s like a symphony of flavor unleashed on your taste buds in every sip. Each drink brings a new taste. There’s lots of layers to this cola and they all meld simultaneously to form a cola that easy-drinking, yet bold in flavor. This is the hot new Russian girl with the sultry accent and porn star body you took on a date and miraculously made your girlfriend before other dudes could discover her. While Karma Cola may not be a household name in America, it has a familiar cola taste with a plethora of foreign flavors that make your mouth tingle in delight. The spices are divine. The cola taste is traditional and comfortable. The sugar is sweet and provides a nice contrast to the kola nut’s bitterness. This is drinkable, yet rich in flavor – a rare combination. I know there’s vanilla in this and I wouldn’t mind seeing it play a larger role to impart more of a creaminess. But that’s like asking Batman to take out your annoying neighbor. It’d be nice, but I’m busy doing other things. Karma Cola is an achievement in cola. In addition to its traditional cola flavors, it strays from the beaten path by adding a handful of various spices, malt extract, vanilla from Sri Lanka, and kola nut from Sierra Leone. It’s safe, yet challenging and should please both the casual soda drinker and culinary enthusiast. Karma Cola is a shooting star of a cola in galaxy full of red giants that need new discoveries like this one. And if you don’t get planet lingo, just know this is absolutely (inter)stellar and worth every penny.

Five Stars

Pig Iron Cola

History: Pig Iron Bar-B-Q is a little piece of the south stashed in the upper northwest. Michael Lucas opened Pig Iron Bar-B-Q in 2004 in Seattle, Washington after studying barbecue while living down in Texas. So you’re probably wondering how a barbecue joint ended up with its own soda. Take a seat. Your lesson is now beginning. When it came to selling soda in his restaurant, Lucas was very specific from the beginning. “When I opened, the one thing I specifically wanted was RC Cola,” he said. So by gawd, he got RC Cola. But there was a problem. Suddenly in 2006, the RC Cola was no longer available. Lucas tells us over the phone with a chuckle that Pig Iron’s RC Cola supplier wasn’t actually licensed to distribute RC Cola. Dude was a soda bootlegger. So I guess I can cross that one off the business idea list. Naturally, Lucas sought out other distributors, but none of them could grant his wish for RC Cola. Eventually one of those distributors, Orca Beverage, called Lucas back and asked what he thought about making his own soda. He was game, and for three months in 2006, Lucas and Orca Beverage experimented with flavors that mimicked RC Cola. He said he wanted something that was “undoubtedly straightforward, but different,” something that had a little bit of mystery to the flavor. He added that caramel and slightly fruity notes were both in mind when concocting the recipe. There was one element of the soda that Lucas was very specific about: carbonation. Unlike traditional colas that blast your mouth with bubbles, Lucas wanted something much less intense that felt softer in the mouth. Another thing Lucas had in mind? Pairing his cola with food. “The thing I thought about most was having the soda with the brisket,” he adds. Savory, salty meats paired with sweet, slightly fruity craft cola. It makes me shed a red, white, and blue-tinged single tear.

Where to get: Pig Iron Cola is nationally distributed. In addition to the BBQ joint in Seattle, you can purchase it online from vendors like Summit City Soda (better deal) and Amazon. If you’re a business looking to sell soda or just someone wanting to place a larger order, Homer Soda Company is your best option.

Nose: Soft cola notes reminiscent of RC Cola; faint cherry; kola nut (cola bitterness).

Taste: Cola; cherry syrup; cane sugar; mild bitterness. This is a sweeter cola with noticeable fruity notes. Cherry is what stands out, but it’s subtle. This is definitely more cola than cherry cola, but the fruity influence is there. I’ve heard the taste of Pig Iron Cola described as “brash” several times, but I disagree. It’s sweet, but not brash. Not harsh. It’s a sweeter, bolder version of RC Cola with more of a cherry note. As is standard with most cola, the carbonation is flush up front before any taste comes in and tinges the entire drink with a traditional mild bitterness. Pig Iron Cola displays a familiar cola taste with a distinct sweetness and slightly fruity influence that help it stand out.

Finish: Slightly more bitter than the body of the soda, but still sweet with faint cherry notes and soft mouth feel.

Rating: We say it all the time because it’s true: cola is the hardest flavor to make taste unique without flying off the hinges. Pig Iron Cola does a nice job of staying traditional, while adding subtle tasting notes like cherry, and turning the volume up on others, like the cane sugar. Those who have tried RC Cola will find an instant comfort with Pig Iron Cola. The two are similar, but Pig Iron is bolder and not quite as soft on the mouth. It’s a bold cola without becoming harsh. It’s like the opposite of my ex-wife. Where this really shines in my opinion is the cane sugar. It’s crisp and bold, but still has enough of a balanced mouth feel to invite copious repeat sipping. The sugar really weaves together the classic cola flavors with those cherry notes we keep mentioning. Because this is on the sweeter side, I’d recommend pairing it with savory or salty foods. This makes sense considering it’s a barbecue joint that makes the stuff. Pig Iron Cola is comfort soda. In a craft soda market that is continually trending away from cola, Pig Iron is a nice reminder that the category is still alive and well.

Bec Cola

History: Regardez comment la fantaisie nous commençons la première phrase de cet examen en français. Don’t worry, the rest is in English. If you didn’t immediately go to Google Translate, that says “Look how fancy we are starting the first sentence of this review in French.” We have the humor of an eight year-old. I know. Bec Cola out of Montreal, Quebec in Canada, however, is not eight years-old. The company began recently in 2014 with humble ambitions. It was about making an organic product with human values behind it, while highlighting Quebec at the same time. Says Bec Cola founder Olivier Dionne, “We firmly believe that the organic philosophy is very important, both for the consumer and/or our land. We wanted to create a soda line free of chemical preservatives and replace refined sugars by Quebec’s wonderful resource which is maple syrup.” Cola with maple syrup. Honestly, we’re talking abooot Canada here… did you expect this soda not to have maple syrup in it?? Since we’re stereotyping Canada right now, let’s keep it going by presenting another: Canadians are nice. This is very true. I know this because when I visited Toronto, beautiful women would speak to me and there wasn’t a judge involved. Bec Cola is also very nice and apparently has nothing to hide because they told us every ingredient in their soda. They are, as follows: “water, organic maple sugar, organic vegetable sugar, citric acid (from lemon), organic caramel color and organic cola flavor.” There was even a smiley face at the end of that answer in Dionne’s email to us. Pretty friendly, eh? According to Dionne, Canadians are the eighth highest drinkers of soda in the world at roughly over 26 gallons per person a year. It’s not quite America’s numbers, but like in the 50 states, soda has a bad rep in Canada because most of it is made cheaply with ingredients that make your insides resent you. “With reason, sodas have a very bad reputation. We intend to change this, by bottling only quality organic ingredients,” Dionne adds. It seems like artisan soda is catching on with our neighbors to the north. Let’s find out what Canadian cola tastes like.

Where to get: Bec Cola is sold throughout a majority of Quebec. Check out the company’s store locator here. If you’re in Canada, you can also buy it online from Terroirs Quebec.

Nose: Nutmeg; cinnamon; cola. Definitely a nuttiness on the sniff.

Taste: Cola; nuttiness; cane sugar. There’s a classic cola flavor to this with some slightly sweet, fruity notes. What’s most prominent is the nuttiness on the second half of each sip that’s accompanied by the distinct flavor or real, crisp cane sugar. The nutty flavor has some nutmeg notes going on, but I’m guessing it’s really just the maple syrup interacting with the sugar. The carbonation in this is very soft, and unlike most colas, it comes at the end rather than blasting your mouth before you even taste anything. This is a soft cola with subtle, different flavors from the ordinary and the nuttiness is a nice touch.

Finish: Nutmeg and kola nut with lemon and undertones of sweetness. You finally get that mild lemon flavor at the end of some sips, but it isn’t consistent.

Rating: What makes Bec Cola a success is the balance of classic and atypical cola flavors. On the first half of each sip, you’ll taste traditionally bittersweet cola flavors, while the back half is anchored by subtle fruity notes and a distinct nuttiness. We can’t really taste the maple as a standalone flavor, but we assume those fruity and nutmeg flavors are created by the way the maple syrup plays out in the soda. There’s also some spice notes in this that we can’t place, but work well. Gives off kind of a fall flavor. Bec Cola would go nice with an oaky bourbon or in a cold glass full of big ice cubes. I’d like to see the maple stand out a little more distinctively to make this feel super Canadian. I want this to be so Canadian that you’re only allowed to drink it while riding a moose to Tim Horton’s. Those nutty notes are a nice change of pace. Look, at the end of the day, cola is cola. It’s the hardest flavor to make stand out from the crowd. Bec Cola isn’t completely off the beaten path, but it’s off the trail enough for you to invest in this Canadian concoction. Check back this fall for new flavors from Bec Cola.

1642 Cola

History: “Canadian people must have their own cola.” The thought kept running through the mind of 1642 Cola founder, Bastien Poulain. He admits the inspiration behind his creation stemmed from the fact that “there wasn’t a real Canadian coke.” A born Frenchman, Poulain now resonates most with Montreal and thus, wanted a cola that truly represented the city. This is the reason for the name 1642 Cola. For all you non-Canadians, 1642 was the year de Maisonneuve discovered Montreal. Poulain studied the business model of Breizh Cola in France, another soda with a strong regional identity that now commands 20% of the cola market share there. Armed with some knowledge, he really committed to the concept of being true to Montreal with his soda. Poulain notes “the ingredients are all made in Québec” (the province Montreal is located in). Another interesting note: instead of cane sugar, 1642 Cola has “Québec beet sugar” in it. 1642 Cola has some competition with Bec Cola for the king of Cola in Montreal. As the company looks to the future, Poulain says they’re working on a tonic and stevia cola. 1642 Cola is allegedly “a taste of Montreal.” I heard the same thing from a young lady I met there a couple years ago. Hope I don’t end up at the doctor’s office after this experience, too.

Where to get: To check out where 1642 Cola is sold in Québec, check out the company’s online locator. Canadians and Europeans can also buy the stuff online. Americans… as with many fun international sodas, your best bet is to contact the company and beg… at least for now.

Nose: Smells like classic cola, a little reminiscent of Coca-Cola, actually.

Taste: Crisp carbonation; classic cola flavor. The flavor here is pretty standard in terms of what you’re used to with cola. I’d say Coca-Cola is a pretty fair comparison. We’re not tasting the maple syrup influence. If anything, there’s a little bit of nuttiness on the back end, but it’s very minor. Some slightly fruity notes emerge in the body of each sip the more you drink it, but not enough to convince you this is drastically different from classic cola. This is straightforward in terms of cola: big, fizzy carbonation with classic cola taste.

Finish: Classic cola with a little bit of acidity from the bubbles.

Rating: 1642 Cola wanted to make a Canadian Cola because America had its own and their country didn’t. Poulain noted “there wasn’t a real Canadian coke,” and it seems he’s drawn heavily off classic American Coca-Cola. The flavors are as close to each other as we’ve come across in two unrelated brands. It really does taste like Canadian Coke in the most literal sense. There’s a classic crisp, slightly bitter head of carbonation in the beginning, followed up by traditional cola flavor. There’s some nutty notes near the end of each sip, but you have to really search for them. For a cola made with maple, we’re not tasting it. It must be very, very subtle… like my third marriage. If you’re in Canada and pining for something different that still reminds you of America, 1642 Cola should be your go-to. If you’re really wanting to taste that maple influence, you’ll have to have better maple senses than we did. 1642 is solid and works well as a mixer. A bottle here and there should tide you over.